Lady Hollis of Heigham obituary

Labour peer who served as a welfare minister under Tony Blair and was a powerful figure in the House of Lords

A ruthless combination of logic and eloquence, coupled with irresistible personal charm, made Patricia Hollis, Lady Hollis of Heigham, who has died aged 77, one of the most formidable members of the House of Lords, with a possibly unrivalled record in forcing a succession of governments to implement fundamental changes in legislation entirely as a result of revolts she had instigated and led in the voting lobbies of the upper house.

It was all the more remarkable that the former Labour minister was able to build cross-party support for her passionate campaigns on such conventionally complex and arid subjects as tax credits, social security and pension rights.

She achieved her extraordinary success as a leading campaigner for social justice in contemporary times by putting in the hours as among the hardest working peers in any party and, most importantly, by doing her homework. She once calculated that, as a minister, she made an average of 30 speeches during a four-day parliamentary week, in addition to an excessively heavy load of ministerial and other meetings.

Hollis was immediately appointed an opposition whip when she reached Westminster in 1990. She was also made a spokesperson on social security, disabled people, housing and local government from 1992, and when Labour took office in 1997 she joined the Lords’ frontbench as a junior minister at the Department of Social Security.

She joined the privy council in 1999. From 2001 she was the minister at the Department of Work and Pensions. It was much to her credit that she could make the dullest of topics interesting and intelligible, and she won respect from all sides both for being sensible and for making sense.

She would have made a stunning contribution in the House of Commons, for which she stood three times, in the two elections of 1974 and in 1979, as the Labour candidate for Great Yarmouth. But after she joined the Lords she praised its members’ ability to listen. She said of the upper chamber that “argument and reason and even compassion can be heard in a way that often cuts across party lines”. She concluded one of her most powerful speeches in 2015, obliging George Osborne to reverse planned cuts in tax credits, by asserting that “it is about trust between parliament and the people we serve”.

The Spectator magazine accorded her peer of the year for that rebellion. In 2009 she had been named as Channel 4’s campaigning politician of the year for securing the right for working women to top up their pensions, and she was also named female peer of the year by the pensions company Scottish Widows and the parliamentary publishers, Dods, for securing divorced women a share of their former husbands’ pensions. She campaigned on social care for the elderly, benefits for disabled people and the eradication of child poverty.

Hollis came into national politics with an established understanding of the issues from her lengthy experience in local government. She was a member of Norwich city council from 1968 until 1991 and its first female leader, from 1983 until 1988. She also sat as a Norfolk county councillor (1981-85) and was a member of the regional health authority for four years from 1979. She found it highly amusing that the abbreviation NFN used as a medical shorthand by local doctors in her adopted county stood for “Normal for Norfolk”.

She chaired a local housing association in Norwich and knew her subject. Her pursuit of social equality was supported by statistics that she would scatter in her conversation such as those revealing a difference of four years in the average healthy life expectancy of pensioners over 75 in the city who owned their own homes and council tenants, who faced an earlier death.

Born in south Devon, she was the eldest of three children of Lesley Wells, a farm labourer, and his wife, Queenie, who was in domestic service. Patricia was educated at Plympton grammar school and studied history at Girton College, Cambridge.

She was awarded a first and a Harkness scholarship to study in the US at the University of California and Columbia University, New York (1962-64). She secured a scholarship at Nuffield College, Oxford, and with her DPhil took a post in 1967 as a history lecturer at the University of East Anglia. She became reader and senior fellow in modern history and dean of the School of English and American Studies (1988-90).

In 1987 she published Ladies Elect, a study of women in English local government between 1865 and 1914, and in 1997 a much lauded biography of Jennie Lee, the former Labour minister for the arts, and wife of Aneurin Bevan.

Hollis was chosen by Lee’s literary executors as the official biographer and produced an honest, and thus unflattering, portrait of a woman described by one reviewer as a “human monster”. The book, Jennie Lee: A Life, won the Orwell prize and the Wolfson history prize in 1998. Hollis was herself the literary executor of her close friend Lorna Sage, the academic and literary critic, who died in 2001.

Like many busy people, Hollis found time for a wide range of further public involvement. She sat on a number of public and government bodies, including English Heritage (1988-91), the Press Council (1989-90) and a variety of local authority organisations. She was a fellow of the Royal Historical Society and a deputy lieutenant for Norfolk. She was very musical, loved Fauré and jazz, and sang with the parliamentary choir.

She was married in 1965 to the philosopher Martin Hollis, who died in 1998. They had met as Harkness scholars in the US.

Her partner after his death was the Labour peer Lord (Alan) Howarth of Newport. He survives her, as do the two sons of her marriage, Simon and Matthew.

• Patricia Lesley Hollis, Lady Hollis of Heigham, historian and politician, born 24 May 1941; died 13 October 2018

Julia Langdon

The GuardianTramp

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